An ancient peoples on a hidden planet make hair carpets, but no one seems to know why.
On a distant planet, on the outskirts of a galactic empire, a rudimentary civilisation makes intricate, hand woven carpets. The carpets are made out of human hair, the hair of the wives and daughters of the male carpet makers. It takes an entire lifetime to weave a single carpet, which is then given to the Emperor. This seemingly patriarchal society allows the husbands to have multiple wives – a head wife, and a sub wife. Daughters are welcome, but surplus sons are killed.
The distant planet is part of the Gheera province. It is thousands of years old and has been part mothballed, part forgotten by the Empire. The planets which form part of Gheera province no longer have contact with the central powers of the Empire and live in a lot of ignorance. When rumours start to spread that the Emperor has been overthrown, people are executed for uttering such heresy.
When the narrative jumps to an exploratory expedition set up by the new government, it becomes clear that the Emperor has indeed been executed by a group of rebels, who are now in charge. The exploratory spaceship is hovering over the mysterious planet and one of the crew members, Nillian, decides to descend. What he finds there shocks him. An endless stream of hair carpets are being sent to a planet that is hidden within a black hole. But no one knows why.
The Hair-Carpet Weavers is a 1995 science fiction novel by German writer Andreas Eschbach. It reads very much like a cross between Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Stansilav Lem’s Solaris. That is, the novel has Asimov’s muscular plot structure and Lem’s brilliant sense of irony and eerie atmosphere. Together they make for an utterly compelling story. One of the main themes of the book is how our habits, customs and religious beliefs are formed by hopelessly outdated historical forces. We hold prejudices and are willing to fight wars due to millennia old events. Not only that, we haven’t got a chance of breaking out of these patterns of thinking, as we have no idea of their actual starting point. The hair carpet weavers in Eschbach’s novel have created a whole political and religious system around servicing an ancient Emperor’s ridiculous whim.
A mind-blowing space opera powered by a superbly imagined plot.
The Hair-Carpet Weavers, by Andreas Eschbach. Penguin. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books